In the in-depth comparative review of the new Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac 2003 (EBA) in the June issue of Péter's Digital Reference Shelf, I wrote that the Britannica GeoAnalyzer (BGA) "holds the ace card when it comes to country profiles: free linking to the Britannica GeoAnalyzer service that is so good (and not tied exclusively to the CD-ROM version of EBA) that I am going to write a separate review of that gem which compares countries by a combination of indexes." As promised, here is that review.
BGA is derived from the yearly updated Britannica World Data statistical collection. It offers statistical, demographic and geographical information about all the independent countries, self-governing territories and overseas dependencies of the world. The ever-improving CIA World Factbook has information about more territories — including uninhabited areas of the world like Clipperton Island, which belongs to France, and islands inhabited by less than 50 people, like the Pitcairn Islands, a British dependency — than almost any other reference. And the excellent Information Please Almanac may have more current information about political developments than BGA, but neither is better than BGA when it comes to economic, demographic and vital statistics. Most importantly, BGA has software features that make it possible to rank and compare countries and territories by the user's choice of select criteria (within some limits). Beyond Britannica's own CD/DVD-ROM Reference Suite, the CD/DVD-ROM versions of Encarta World Atlas and the discontinued CD-ROM version of Dorling Kindersley's World Atlas had similar features, but only two countries could be compared simultaneously in those. There are a few Web sites that, developed with support from various geography literacy grants, offer side-by-side country profiles, but they use outdated statistics from earlier editions of the CIA World Factbook.
The publicity blurb on the home page of BGA mentions 217 countries. But unless they count at least four of the following countries separately — Antigua and Barbuda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sao Tomé and Principe, Serbia and Montenegro, Trinidad and Tobago — the scope of BGA is "only" 213 countries. This is still more than its competitors, except for the CIA World Factbook, which covers more than 260 geographic entities, but can only list countries alphabetically and show one statistical indicator at a time.
Except for a few countries (like the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., Italy, China and Japan), each country has a one-page PDF snapshot (shown here at 70% reduction to get a feel for it) following exactly the same structure and layout. This helps to make comparisons if the pages of two or more country snapshots are printed. The print quality is superb.
Some of the data are also available in EBA, but because EBA unfortunately strictly follows the organization of the book and has country profiles of different lengths depending on the importance of the country, it is not conducive for comparisons. Because of the physical limitations of the print edition, EBA also has very crowded pages.
BGA is pure data, and that makes it possible to squeeze a lot of information on to a single page, even when starting each statistical category on a new line. The population data are the most current, mostly from 2002, and population projection data are typically given for 2010 and 2020, along with the doubling time of the population. Age breakdown, sex distribution, ethnic composition and vital statistics are usually from 2000 — pretty current by standards of statistical compendia. Economic and educational indicators are less current — all these vary depending of the ability of the international agencies (UN, WHO, ILO, IMF) and the national statistical agencies to collect, process, clean and publish the data for each nation, as BGA uses these publications in compiling its data.
Each snapshot starts with essential political and geographical facts about the country, accompanied by a locator map, to get a sense of its location. (I use BGA snapshots of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the examples, as they are getting some political attention, and statistics not widely broadcast by Al Jazeera can shed some additional light to what may not be visible through the veil of filtered government communiqués.) This section is followed by the Demography and Vital statistics section, in which it is easy to notice the unusual gender distribution in the UAE, where the female population is merely 32.46%. Such data really stand out when snapshots are visualized in charts comparing countries, as discussed later. In this section, I sorely miss the neonatal and infant mortality rate by gender and the maternal mortality rate figures. Both are quite telling about a country's health care and gender attitude — not necessarily in direct relation to its poverty or wealth.
The national economy section is the largest one in every snapshot, and the one where several data elements are often missing, such as the average household income, which could be quite telling. However, there are many revealing tidbits in the various subsections, such as the amount that goes to defense and security versus health and social development, or the ratio of the economically active (i.e. working) population. Regular elements of this section include tables of gross domestic product and labor force, the price and earning indexes and the foreign trade balance. The transport and communication section now includes useful new indicators, such as cellular phone subscribers, personal computers and the number of Internet users , all of which would be interesting to see as a percentage of the population. The education and health section provides the usual indicators (including infant mortality rate which should be in the vital statistics section) and is broken down by gender.
The military section is the last unit of the snapshot. Although these should be taken with a grain of salt, they are still informative, especially as the military expenditure as a percentage of GNP shows the world average next to the country's ratio. Such world average figures are also available with a few other indicators, such as the birth and death rate, but many more data elements would benefit from that index to help put things into perspective.
It is a good idea to provide links at the end of each profile to the Web site of the national statistical office, the central bank or other agency that keeps records about the nation's physical and economical status. Unfortunately, these are not actionable (clickable) links, even though the Acrobat software allows inserting hot links.
The good news is that BGA offers some very useful software tools to visualize the mountain of data. Unfortunately, not all the data elements can be included in the user-generated tables. Also, the selection of the countries whose data is simultaneously shown is limited. There doesn't seem to be much reason for this, especially as the tables can be switched to show the countries as rows and the statistical indicators as columns — which is an excellent idea.
You can choose to make tables or charts of current or chronological comparison and ranked list. For the current comparison table or chart, you can choose three countries and five statistical indicators at most. This is unnecessarily limited as the user may be happy to scroll the screen horizontally or vertically to see data for more countries and statistical indicators at a time. There is also a print and e-mail option. I would like to see a save option as well to make it easier for downloading a table for further processing by a spreadsheet program.
For the chronological comparison you can also choose three countries, but only one statistical variable. The result may be displayed as a table or a graph, which shows the similar declining GNP trend in three oil countries, probably after a major oil boom when prices skyrocketed, very well. The countries can be quickly changed to show, for example, how Saudi Arabia compares next to Norway and Sweden, whose GNPs show a steady (or almost steady) growth because their oil production and sales is not the ultra-dominant, quasi-exclusive contributor to their wealth.
The ranked listing is an excellent tool. You can rank countries by the highest or the lowest values of some indicators. It makes your choice easy that either way you can have all the countries, 100, 50, 25 or 10 countries, and if you save the results on your own as a text file, then you can feed it to a spreadsheet program to do post-processing, although in doing so you loose the nifty country flags. Looking at the list of lowest-ranked countries in terms of the percentage of female employment in the economy is eye-opening and offers an opportunity to practice respect and honor ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.
This is a promising start to changing the way we look up country information from the usual one dimension. Offering this extra feature free with the purchase of the new yearly Almanac, Britannica may be successful in quickly getting into the fierce almanac market with its 2004 edition.